Ukraine: free, tolerant, and democratic

Ukrainian statehood from the perspective of December 1941

[Editor's note: For this year's winter reading, we offer two articles by scholar Liliana Hentosh that explore Metropolitan Andrey Sheptytsky's view on Ukrainian statehood. Yesterday's article explored the metropolitan's views and actions during the attempt to restore Ukrainian statehood on 30 June 1941.]

One should not be surprised that the darkest period in the history of Lviv and the most complex era for Ukrainians formulating plans for their state independence were chosen for reflections on statehood. Certainly, in those critical times, the most important thing was to hear the voice of reason, especially from an authoritative person in society. Such a stance became extraordinarily significant when the Nazis banned all political parties, and the Ukrainian political leadership passed into the hands of people whose views barely contradicted those of the Germans. Today we will talk about how Metropolitan Andrei Sheptytsky saw the future of the Ukrainian people and their state. It is also essential to address this topic in order to prevent possible speculations around the "sole pro-statehood line," which at the time was supposedly put forward by the OUN [Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists — Ed.] alone, as well as to describe the degree to which Sheptytsky's view of the future Ukrainian state diverged from that of the radical Ukrainian nationalists and, generally, how different their fundamental positions were.

"We say that power comes from God, from which nature also comes… And power lies in the nature of a people, in other words, of an entire people, not a single person."

The metropolitan's views on this issue were most fully expressed in his decree/pastoral letter to the clergy entitled "Our Statehood," the title of which, owing to German censorship, was changed to the simplified form of "How to Build Our Own Home." This text was written in December 1941, at a time when the archeparchy had come under German occupation, preceded by twenty-two months under Soviet rule. It is worth reminding readers that the population of these lands was suffering from every possible disaster of wartime, and violence and death were daily occurrences. The 1930s and 1940s in Europe were a period when totalitarian ideas were predominant not only in sociopolitical life and in the ideas espoused by the elites but also in the views of ordinary citizens. In these circumstances, Metropolitan Sheptytsky managed to formulate a vision that was very far from the totalitarian mainstream. His views may have struck his contemporaries as fantastically utopian. But one thing is certain: You had to have enough courage and visionary leadership to write in 1941 not only about what Ukraine was supposed to be like but also what dangers it would be necessary to avoid.

In the first part of the decree, the metropolitan offers his view of the origins of power. In his opinion, all power derives from God, but in any case, it cannot be the prerogative of one person or a group of people. "We say that power comes from God, from which nature also comes… And power lies in the nature of a people, in other words, of an entire people, not a single person. There is no reason why an individual man or several men, or more people should be the leaders and rule others, who are equal to them." Thus, the metropolitan was not just offering a Christian interpretation of democracy, but also opposing the leader-type of governance and one-party system.

Metropolitan Sheptytsky believed that citizens must have equal rights with regard to participation in elections, and they also must resolve complex questions with the help of referendums and plebiscites. In his opinion, legislation and the judicial system play an extraordinarily important role. Therefore, elected political and social leaders should establish "just laws not contrary to Divine Law and the general good, and an impartial and independent judicial system that adapts general laws to individual cases and differentiates between the mutual rights and obligations of citizens."

The metropolitan frequently emphasized the importance of Christian moral values for building a harmonious and just society and state. In a decisive way, he defined the functions of state power in the religious/spiritual life of both society and the individual. At the same time, he let it be understood clearly that the community of Ukraine would be comprised of people with different religious convictions and views. Therefore, the organs of power must "guarantee all citizens that civil liberty which every person naturally possesses — not be forced to any external manifestations of internal convictions that he does not have, and the freedom to practice the religion that he considers his own, since there is nothing in that confession that is contrary to natural morality. In that civil tolerance toward all religions and confessions, the authorities must not penetrate the internal contents of those confessions, they do not test them, but only guarantee the citizen the practice of civil liberties." It was a very courageous step to write such lines about equality and parity of citizens who have different religions and are often of different ethnicities at a time when the persecution of the Jewish community was taking place.

In writing about state and statehood, Metropolitan Sheptytsky cautioned against the totalitarian-type state or, as he writes, against "totalitarianism and étatisme," where the state strips citizens of the majority of their rights and regulates even private life. He believed that the question of the forms of political rule — a republic or monarchy — is of secondary importance because what is more important is the question of whether "a reasonable measure between the rights and freedoms of individuals and the rights and powers of the state" is preserved in it" [the state — L.H.].

The metropolitan pondered various forms of the exercise of state power, paying attention first and foremost to shortcomings and problems. He reached the conclusion that even low-quality democracy, "a bad democracy or demagogy," is less harmful to society. These reflections of his are valuable given the widespread campaign of criticism that was directed at parliamentary democracy in the 1930s. The fascists/Nazis and communists/Bolsheviks considered parliamentary democracy stupid, weak, and unsuitable for creating a strong state. The Ukrainian nationalists, who sought the triumph of nationocracy, were also extremely critical of parliamentary democracy.

Interestingly, Metropolitan Sheptytsky pondered the contradictions between the idea of government by the people and the difficulties of its practical realization. He believed that one obstacle to the qualitative realization of democracy could be that average citizens often do not possess high moral virtues and education. Likewise, elected leaders frequently do not meet the requirements of "serving" community interests. That is why the metropolitan regarded morality and moral values as a very important characteristic of a good citizen and a true state leader. He was certain that when only a single party dominates political life and the interests of a single national group are championed, there is a growing danger of abuses affecting other parties and other nationalities. In such a case, he wrote, the "virtues of citizens involved in power should be all the greater, the more partisanship and national chauvinism blind a person to the rights of opponents."

Which moral character traits, or "virtues," should citizens who elect and who aspire to be elected possess? The metropolitan's answer is formulated quite simply: all those traits, moral values, that "are an adaptation of the principles of fairness and love of one's neighbor." As Sheptytsky wrote, how, precisely, where, and when can citizens cultivate in themselves such qualities of "honesty"? The metropolitan believed that the Church is the very milieu that fosters moral growth. In addition, "good schools of civic virtues are the family, the community, and voluntary fellowship and communities of people." In the text "Our Statehood," he focuses in detail on the importance of the creation and dynamic activities of various types of civic organizations.

Metropolitan Sheptytsky also cautioned against the dangers that could arise in Ukrainian society and the state. In his opinion, the greatest danger would be intolerance, unwillingness to compromise, and the inability to listen to the other side's ideas.

He was convinced that such "fellowships" should develop as much as possible and can encompass literally all spheres, all domains of human activity. Furthermore, organs of state power should do their utmost to promote civic organizations and movements because they fundamentally affect the growth of society and the strengthening of the state. These remarks of the metropolitan's carry extraordinary weight, inasmuch as they concern what we call civic society today. Civic society was the very engine of the two contemporary revolutions in Ukraine and the organizer of resistance to Russian aggression. In this context, the metropolitan also believed that "in the Fatherland's government, the most important issue may be to guarantee the greatest freedom to communities." In other words, local self-government on all levels would play an important role in the future Ukrainian state. Such a viewpoint was not at all popular in the 1930s and 1940s, as centralization and voluntarism were considered the hallmarks of a strong state.

Metropolitan Sheptytsky also cautioned against the dangers that could arise in Ukrainian society and the state. In his opinion, the greatest danger would be intolerance, unwillingness to compromise, and the inability to listen to the other side's ideas. "For how to explain that fatal division among people, those disputes, squabbles, quarrels, and partisanship that destroys each national cause?! How to explain the psyche of those numerous ardent patriots whose work has a conspicuously ruinous character?! Will positive or negative elements prevail?" Sheptytsky asks rhetorically. The metropolitan saw intolerance of other convictions, beliefs, and thoughts as a particular danger for Ukrainian society. "Unfortunately, in our country intolerance of the heterodox [those who think or believe differently — L.H.], the concept of orthodoxy as hatred, as resistance, is such a recurrent symptom that one can seriously fear for Ukraine's future…." These words were written at a time when totalitarian ideas held sway, ideas that left no room for the slightest possibility of dissent; in the religious sphere as well, views of the Other, of Otherness were more than intolerant. The metropolitan's reflections on the importance of tolerance and respect for the thoughts and views of the Other — whether individuals, groups, parties or ethnic groups — are also reflected in his other pastoral letters, for example, "Thou Shalt Not Kill!

The metropolitan's pastoral letter "Our Statehood" prompts many reflections. In this text, Metropolitan Sheptytsky uses words and phrases, like "the people" (narod), "our people" (nash narod), and "the Ukrainian people" (ukraїns′kyi narod) but does not use the word "nation" (natsiia); instead, he uses the words "national" (natsional′nyi) and "nationalities" (natsional′nosti). This choice of words and terms was undoubtedly deliberate and openly anomalous, if not challenging. At the beginning of "Our Statehood," the metropolitan states that "the ideal of our national life is our own all-national Fatherland Home." This phrase does not convey as explicit a meaning as would appear at first glance. Only at the end of the second part of the decree does it become obvious that the metropolitan is not talking about a national state, as his contemporaries understood it.

The text of "Our Statehood" makes it clear that Metropolitan Sheptytsky saw the future of Ukraine as a multinational and multiconfessional state in which citizens of various ethnic backgrounds and various religions would enjoy equal rights.

In writing about the Ukrainian people that would be building the Ukrainian state, Metropolitan Sheptytsky proposes his answer to the question of "What makes a certain number of individuals one people?" He was convinced that "all who speak Ukrainian or consider Ukrainian as their language will constitute the Ukrainian people." However, he noted straightaway that a common language could not be the exclusive or most important element in creating unity. The metropolitan writes that a very important role is played by inner aspiration, the conviction of belonging to a community that tends to evolve. "Besides language, a constitutional element of nationality will be, perhaps, that spontaneous, barely-cognizant will of all persons to unite in a single organization. That will is proof of those different traits or characters of the people, which instinctively push it toward the desire to be one." Obviously, this inner aspiration and his personal solution to the question of membership in a community were very important to the metropolitan. Such an approach did not emphasize the ethnic affiliation of the members of the community called the "Ukrainian people." In any case, he did not share racial or nationalistic approaches, like theories about common blood and a common mythical origin. His idea can be expanded to include discussion of a community of people united by shared convictions, a common goal, and a shared desire to build a common home, the Fatherland.

The text of "Our Statehood" makes it clear that Metropolitan Sheptytsky saw the future of Ukraine as a multinational and multiconfessional state in which citizens of various ethnic backgrounds and various religions would enjoy equal rights. Doubtless, eighty years ago, no one outlined such a plan for Ukraine's future in the dominant political narratives, and it would appear that in many respects, his plan for Ukraine is being realized only now.

Today Ukraine is an independent, democratic state, a parliamentary democracy. All citizens have equal rights and obligations and enjoy religious freedom and freedom of conscience. It is interesting that civic organizations and the volunteer movement also play an important role in public life and the state. One can also agree that the metropolitan was correct in his belief that the absence of moral values and intolerance are very real threats to society and statehood. It seems that Sheptytsky's thoughts, written in December 1941, can help us today to look from the perspective of time at our contemporary life and the path that we have traversed, and to draw serious conclusions.

Liliana Hentosh
Liliana Hentosh is a Candidate of Historical Sciences and Senior Research Fellow at the Ivan Franko Lviv National University's Institute of Historical Research. She is a leading scholar on the life and work of Andrei Sheptytsky, Metropolitan Archbishop of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church.

This article was published as part of a project supported by the Canadian non-profit charitable organization Ukrainian Jewish Encounter.

Originally appeared in

Translated from the Ukrainian by Marta D. Olynyk.
Edited by Peter Bejger.

NOTE: UJE does not necessarily endorse opinions expressed in articles and other materials published on its website and social media pages. Such materials are posted to promote discussion related to Ukrainian-Jewish interactions and relations. The website and social media pages will be places of information that reflect varied viewpoints.